Heroines of Personal Finance and Entrepreneurship #3: Alexandra Levit

Ramit Sethi

Interview contributed by Cody McKibben

Alexandra Levit is the author They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World, and a regular corporate and university speaker on Gen-Y employees. She is the Founder and President of Inspiration@Work career consultancy and also serves as a Vice President at Edelman public relations agency. She blogs regularly at Water Cooler Wisdom, and has two books lined up for 2008: How’d You Score THAT Gig? and Solving the Talent Equation. Alexandra dedicates herself to helping acclimatize young employees to the corporate world, and she has some unique research on women in Corporate America which she shares with us:

Already in this series we’ve heard from Pam Slim, who specializes in helping people transition out of corporate life and into self-employment, but you actually encourage young people to stay and excel within the corporate world. Why?

Not everyone is cut out for the life of working for oneself. Not only is being an entrepreneur costly, nerve-wracking, and incredibly hard work, but because of the way our economy is structured, it’s simply impossible for everyone to be one. When considering employment, young people should look at an array of options, including those that involve working in the business world. At the end of the day, most people will end up employed in a more conventional work environment, so it may be wiser to develop the skills and the attitude that allow you to succeed and achieve your professional goals within the context of that setting.

What has your personal experience been like as a young employee climbing the corporate ladder?

In the beginning of my career, I was really frustrated and confused. I didn’t understand why I tried so hard in position after position but never seemed to get anywhere. Things started to turn around when I put myself under a microscope and took a close look at the persona I presented to the companies I worked for. After polishing the package and learning how to promote it, I practiced human relations skills like diplomacy and cooperation, as well as personal development skills such as organization and time management. I started getting the promotions I deserved, and finally I could say I was happy working in Corporate America.

A few years ago, I went out on my own and formed Inspiration@Work, a career and marketing communications consultancy, and I’m now part-time VP at Edelman, a Top 5 PR agency, where I’m still able to spend a few days a week writing and speaking at corporations and universities about business issues affecting young employees.

So tell us about your book They Don’t Teach Corporate in College. What makes you an expert on the challenges facing young employees in the workplace?

I graduated from college as a straight-A student hell bent on skipping up New York City’s corporate ladder. But after six months on the job, I was so stressed out that I was ready to join the large numbers leaving the business world for graduate or law school. Eventually, though, by sticking around and paying attention to the few people around me who weren’t dropping from stress-induced coronaries, I developed many of the skills crucial to staying sane and building a career.

I wrote They Don’t Teach Corporate in College because I thought that if I shared my experiences with other twenty-somethings, maybe I would save them some of the pain I went through. The premise of the book is that the business world is not a natural fit for graduates who leave school expecting results from a logical combination of education and effort. Suddenly, the tenets of success they were taught since kindergarten don’t apply, because getting ahead in the business world has little to do with intelligence or exceeding a set of defined expectations. The book focuses on tangible tactics that twenty-somethings can put to work immediately to be successful and satisfied working in the business world.

What about young women on the career track — what specific obstacles do women face within professional life that the men don’t?

I think that women face two primary obstacles: the obstacle of assertiveness and the obstacle of work/life balance. With assertiveness, the same behavior that is rewarded in men is often looked down upon in women because of gender-role stereotypes that are still in place. I’ve even had young women tell me that they are afraid to greet people with a strong handshake because they are worried about being perceived as too aggressive! More experienced women, on the other hand, are always watching themselves to make sure that they’re being agreeable with superiors and subordinates, for god forbid they come across as the dreaded “b word.”

Women are also in a bind when it comes to reaching a certain level of seniority, but at the same time wanting to have enough time for their families. Generally, executives are still expected to be available 24/7, but even if they work, women are still considered the primary caregivers and the ones to take off when a child is sick, for example. Those two expectations are often in direct conflict with one another.

You’ve got two more books on the way for 2008: How’d You Score THAT Gig?: A Guide to the Coolest Jobs — and How to Get Them (pre-order here) and Solving the Talent Equation. Any interesting thoughts on the gender issue based on research for those two upcoming books?

There have been a few interesting studies lately. Most have heard that women in business still lag behind men, and the overall wage gap means that women earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, found that the gap narrowed to 93 percent for workers under 25 years old, indicating that the gap only widens as women move through their careers and face increasing obstacles to pay equity as they become more senior.

I also like the study by the Simmons School of Management that reported that women with informal mentors reported a greater number of promotions and higher promotion rates than those without mentors.

Thanks so much for your participation, Alexandra! So glad to have your viewpoint. Alexandra Levit will be visiting California in August. To have her speak at your organization, leave a comment on this post.

Cody McKibben is a student, blogger, designer, instigator and weekend entrepreneur. He enjoys interviewing entrepreneurs and other experts and blogs regularly at and

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  1. Amy Jasper

    She sounds great.

  2. topseekrit

    I love these past few blogs about women and entrepreneurship, but I think we need just a tad bit more variety outside of writers, authors, consultants, don’t you think?

  3. Preeti

    I was very exicted when I came to know that you are going to start personal finance series for women.

    I have liked your past articles in the series. But..

    I would like to hear more about managing personal finance rather than knowing just about books and their authors. Or you can tell us how these ladies(authors) are managing their finance.

    What say?

  4. Barbara Winter

    As a self-employment advocate, I take issue with the comment that being an entrepreneur is costly, never-wracking and incredibly hard work. Of course, it can be all those things, but most of the self-employed people I work with are joyful, creative and wondering why it took them so long to figure out that they could work for themselves doing something they love. The myth that self-employment is tough or only for a few exists because our culture has taught us to be employees. Consequently, we don’t know much about thinking like an entrepreneur. The good news is that we can learn to see opportunities, create bootstrapping businesses, and, even make a contribution to solving the problems of our very messy society. And not everyone has to endure years in corporate life before striking out on their own.

  5. Cody McKibben

    Thanks for the comments guys. I know I have a little different style than what you’re used to with Ramit…Right now I’m just trying to get a picture of these women’s backgrounds and what their expertise is–each of them has knowledge that will shed light on a different piece of the puzzle.

    I assure you, very soon we will feature the round table discussion with five of our expert panelists and we will hear quite a bit more about women and their personal finances.

    Barbara, thanks for your comment. I’m currently an employee with a few projects on the side, but I’m a big advocate of entrepreneurship as well and I think I agree with you. I like to encourage everyone to believe they have it in them to make it on their own. But, at the same time Alexandra has a point in that the majority of people will end up working for others, not having others work for them.

    Thanks guys. Please keep tuning in–I promise you’ll enjoy. =)

  6. Cooper

    I wish that college and even high school counseling and career offices would promote books like Levit’s more. I grew up in a blue-collar family that forced its way into the middle class through smart investing and saving and good luck. My parents understood the value of education, and covered all of my educational expenses, even my college tuition and living costs. However, I often find myself wishing that I had more non-judgmental family members or family friends in professional and technical fields to advise me about my career. Sure, I have a young supervisor and a few good contacts from my college, but I feel afraid that if I ask too many dumb questions, it might lower their opinion of me, or worse, negatively affect their recommendation letters for me. Books like these are a low-risk way for me to get a “feel” for the professional world.

    I also think this kind of book is especially helpful for women, since we women who grew up in non-professional households and communities often didn’t have access to female mentors and role-models in careers similar to the ones that interested us. The vast majority of women I knew before college were homemakers, or workers in “pink-collar” jobs like elementary education, day-care, secretarial jobs, etc. Knowing that there are women out there who are serious about advancing in the professional world and taking control of their finances is a tremendous relief if you’re growing up in a community where some women consider this behavior masculine or bitchy.

    Heh, I guess I’ve given a lot of praise considering I’ve never read the book!

  7. serpah

    I like the references and facts in this interview.

  8. Alexandra Levit

    Hi everyone, just wanted to pop in and say thanks for all of the great comments on the interview. It’s been a wonderful experience working with Cody and Ramit, and if you’d like to contact me directly to ask me questions about how I’ve managed my finances, or anything else, please feel free to do so. Best, Alexandra

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  10. Cody McKibben

    Also, if anyone has any suggestions for experts to interview, go ahead and connect them with Ramit or myself. cody at codymckibben dot com.

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